UPSTAGE. By John Mason Brown. New York. W. W. Norton & Company. 1930. Price $3.00.
JOHN MASON BROWN, onetime moving spirit in the Harvard Dramatic Club, dramatic critic for the New York Evening Post, and a member of the Board of Governors of the Cambridge School of the Drama has written a history of the modern theatre not from the static point of view of events but as an observer of the direction of living tendencies.
In discussing the problem of the playwright Mr. Brown writes that the limitations of the modern theatre are to be found in the limitations of the imagination of the audience. Of the writers he discusses, no one has the power to get beyond the restrictions of the theatre because they themselves are all too much a part of the period. In a specific discussion of the paradox of American, theatrical realism, he speaks of it as, "--a fable worthy of Grimm in a manner worthy of Sinclair Lewis." Even Philip Barry, whose comedy has the charm and authenticity of the Restoration, descends to preaching and farce, so characteristic of the drama of sensibility. His writing has the cold politeness of wit and brilliance that is associated with true comedy, but, as Mr. Brown adds, "--Mr. Barry's comedies are of a kind which cry into handkerchiefs instead of laughing into fans."
As for Paul Green and Sidney Howard, they are both honest and constructive in their writing, but they can not get beyond the lack of imagination in the American theatre. Even Eugene O'Neill, the paragon of present day critics, is "an unsatisfactory genius." "--it is as an emotionalist, and not as a thinker, that Mr. O'Neill excels. His strength is of the great, raw, shaggy kind that Whitman's has. It is soberer, starker and infinitely more glim. But it is no less torrential, savage as it is, with the same energy, heavy with the same profusion and cumulative in the same headlong way."
In writing of the actors in the American theatre, Mr. Brown selects those people who present the most personally dynamic interpretations of their parts. Acting is not merely being natural, but an artistic projection in terms of the individual performer. Like the playwrights, they too have to struggle against unimaginativeness of the audience. Mr. Brown selects Otis Skinner and Mrs. Fiske of the old school and Pauline Lord. Katherine Cornell, the Lunts and Eva Le Gallienne of the younger generation to show how this problem of stodginess is being met in practical theatre presentation.
As for the producers and their part in the general trend of the theatre, Mr. Brown writes of David Belasco, the Barnum realist and showman. Winthrop Ames and his dramatic gentility and Arthur Hopkins whose sincerity leads him into many pitfalls. In this lection of the book one feels that there have been many omissions. Those men who are considered are given adequate and illuminating analysis, but they certainly do not present a complete picture of what is actually going on in modern theatre production.
The scene designer is presented as the man who frames the play. Lee Simonson and Robert Edmond Jones represent the tendency to keep the settings in their true proportion to the play, while Norman-Bel Geddes is criticized for allowing the scenic design to over-shadow the actors.
If is in writing of the critics that Mr. Brown is most entertaining and keen. He speaks of criticism as that "lean-to in literature." Woolcott. Young and Nathan who wrote of the modern sex play as "The Adventures of Phallus in Wonderland" are all considered in the light of their critical idiosyncrasies. This section is one of the high spots in the book.
The final chapter is devoted to the audience and the future of the theatre: and like most predictions, it might just as well have been omitted. However, after having written so engagingly and cogently of the modern theatre. Mr. Brown is certainly entitled to make remarks about the hopes of the drama. Obviously what precedes this section is of sufficient excellence to excuse a few paragraphs that are only inadequate by comparison with the rest.